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Although he has never taught composition, György Kurtág has been a tireless and enthusiastic teacher and coach of chamber music and piano. (Among his students at the Liszt Academy in Budapest were András Schiff and Zoltan Kocsis.) “I understand music only when I teach,” he says. “Even if I listen to it or play it myself, it’s not the same as working on it and trying to understand it for others. I just love music.”

That love was apparent from an early age, when Kurtág began playing piano duets with his mother in his native village, in a formerly Hungarian region of Transylvania in Romania. Hearing a radio broadcast of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony when he was 13 inspired Kurtág to become a composer, and led to piano and composition lessons in a nearby town and the discovery of the music of Béla Bartók. In 1945, he made his way to Budapest in the hope of studying piano with Bartók, who was expected to return with the end of the war, only to be greeted with the news of Bartók’s death. He remained nonetheless, studying piano, composition, and chamber music at the Liszt Academy (where he became friends with György Ligeti), and becoming a Hungarian citizen in 1948.

In the liberalization of cultural life following the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Kurtág was able to go to Paris for a year (1957-58). He studied composition with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud, and made his own detailed study of Anton Webern’s music. Kurtág also worked with psychologist Marianne Stein, who advised him to concentrate on basic musical elements with clearly defined parameters. Having completely rethought the compositional process, Kurtág labeled the first piece he wrote after his return to Budapest, a string quartet, his Opus 1. (He subsequently withdrew most of his earlier works.)

A similar turning point came in 1973, when Kurtág was asked to contribute some pieces to a book of piano pieces for children. He turned again to simplicity, exploring the interface between performance and composition in Elö-Játékok (Pre-Games). So successful was this that Kurtág has continued composing other Games for piano (including some four-hand pieces, recalling the duets he would play with his mother). Many of these pieces are written in a graphic notation that encourages improvisation with specific devices and techniques, and have provided the basis for larger works. The Games include homages to and parodies of other composers’ works; they also record people and events in Kurtág’s life, as a sort of musical diary.

“The works are not only fragmentary in the way they infer larger narratives and dramatic scenarios, but also the musical gestures are often cut short. Kurtág strives to connect the physical act of a gesture at the instrument with a visceral sense of timing and sound in his works,” wrote pianist Xak Bjerken. “An interrupted gesture, then, propels us to complete the statement in the silence that follows.”

- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.